Fifteen years after the transfer of power to Beijing, Hong Kong is far from the utopia envisioned by Mao. On the contrary, as Hong Kong Fashion Week demonstrated recently, Hong Kong is the gateway to capitalism and consumerism in China, if not the world.
When Great Britain relinquished control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, thousands fled, expecting life to change for the worse: Goodbye free market, hello communism. But Beijing seems to have kept its promise of “one country, two systems,” and China’s first “Special Administrative Region” has flourished as Asia’s vibrant center of capitalism. Hong Kong, in fact, is one of the freest economies in the world, ranking first in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom and second in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index (behind Singapore). Goodbye communism, hello consumerism.
Hong Kong is also Asia’s center of luxury shopping. The bustling streets are filled with shops selling ancient Chinese antiques and sleek minimalist furniture, stalls of fake designer handbags alongside red-and-gold paper lanterns for the Chinese New Year, even smoky storefronts hocking offal-on-a-stick.
Yet Hong Kong is making a name for itself no longer as the place to haggle for your fake Louis Vuitton handbag but the place to finally buy your real bag from one of the seven sparkling Louis Vuitton stores in greater Hong Kong. (Paris has just six.) And as I heard from numerous industry insiders, while many Hong Kongers cross the border to shop the deals in Shenzhen, many more mainland Chinese travel to Hong Kong to ensure they’re buying genuine luxury goods, lining up outside the stores, from Armani to Shanghai Tang, to shop without sales tax. In 2011, Hong Kong welcomed 28.1 million visitors from the mainland, four times the size of Hong Kong’s population, who contributed to total retail sales of $52.3 billion during the same year, according to the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department.
International brands are taking notice of the need to solidify their presence in Hong Kong and greater China, the second-largest market in the world for luxury goods and home to a million millionaires. (The American luxury-accessories brand Coach and the Italian fashion powerhouse Prada made headlines last year when they became the first companies from their respective countries to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.) And Hong Kong Fashion Week, held at the gargantuan Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, showcased the importance of Hong Kong to the growing consumer culture in China, and provided the opportunity for designers and brands from around the world to enter the Chinese market.
Hong Kong Fashion Week is Asia’s largest fashion event, featuring over 1,600 exhibitors of apparel, accessories, and other merchandise, alongside the Hong Kong World Boutique, which features high-end designers from around the world. “The fairs have again received great support from global fashion designers and brands, cementing Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s trendsetting hub,” according to Benjamin Chau of the Trade and Development Council. The participants represented over two dozen countries, with buyers from dozens more on missions to find the latest in fast fashion, denim, accessories, even couture. Fashion Week is an opportunity not just for Hong Kong-based designers to grow their brands but for international designers to gain exposure in Asia, especially China, as well. The flagship fashion show of the week, the Hong Kong Fashion Extravaganza, brought together four unique, rising-star designers from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Paris, and London.
Hidy Ng is one of Hong Kong’s better-known designers, and already sells her ready-to-wear in Harvey Nichols department stores in Hong Kong as well as international boutiques. Ng introduced her Fall/Winter 2012 line at the Extravaganza, and her chic, polished collection inspired by Parisian women could make her an even bigger name in the global fashion scene. For Craig Lawrence, a London-based designer whose avant-garde knitwear has been worn by Lady Gaga, the Extravaganza was an opportunity to solidify his existing relationships and expand his brand. “Asia has always been a really big support to Craig in terms of press and interest at the beginning of his career,” press rep Ella Dror told a small group of reporters. “It’s really important that he’s here in terms of picking up new stocklists.” Lawrence agreed: “The more people who see my work, the better.”
Aside from the high-profile runway shows, Fashion Week and World Boutique offered fledgling designers the best opportunity to develop their brands. Glori Tsui, creative director of a new sustainable leather line called Methodology, showed her studded convertible jackets in Hong Kong to gauge interest from buyers, though the line will officially launch later this year in New York. “Hong Kong Fashion Week is a starting ground for designers,” she says. “Designers can meet buyers from around the world and get a kickstart.” Aniket Satam, a recent graduate of the Somani Institute of Art and Fashion Technology in Mumbai, stood out in the sea of exhibitors for his punchy fabrics inspired by vintage gypsy embroidery, neon zippers, and skillful tailoring. He launched his label, A+ by Aniket, in the fall and exhibited this year in Hong Kong to obtain “diverse exposure” for his brand.
As the Hong Kong market grows in importance, both to China and the world, the designers coming out of Hong Kong will grow in importance to the fashion industry as well. Mao notwithstanding, it’s a fact that when designers make it in competitive China, they’re on track for a lucrative career.
Samantha Sault is a writer in Washington.